It’s what you might call fighting fire with fire. The Dutch city of Amsterdam is giving chronic alcoholics beer — five cans a day — in exchange for cleaning up city parks.
This illogical idea is that of the Rainbow Foundation Project, which was created 35 years ago to help heroin addicts; the project also runs three “drug rooms” in Amsterdam where people can go to take the substance. Its program for alcoholics, which is financed by the Dutch state and by donations, recalls incentives programs in which people receive financial rewards — some kind of tangible thing to motivate them — to quit smoking or start breastfeeding.
As Gerrie Holterman, who heads the Rainbow Foundation Project puts it, “Heroin addicts can go to shooting galleries, so why shouldn’t we also give people beer?”
The idea for the program arose because, Holterman explains, a “group of chronic alcoholics was causing a nuisance in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark: fights, noise, disagreeable comments to women.” Thanks to the project, the men now stay occupied, rather than causing “trouble at the park.”
Two groups of about ten alcoholics each work about three days a week. They start their day by going to a garden shed in Amsterdam where they receive two cans of beer and, if they drink it, coffee. Holterman notes their alcohol consumption but “there is an atmosphere of trust: if she gets called away, the alcoholics themselves record how much they have drunk.”
After working in the morning, they receive two more cans of beer at lunch time along with a hot meal. They’re given one more can at 3:30 at the end of their working day as well as a half-packet of rolling tobacco and ten euros.
According to Holterman, “everyone benefits” from this unusual arrangement, as the men are “no longer in the park, they drink less, they eat better and they have something to keep them busy during the day.”
The program isn’t about changing people’s attitudes towards alcohol and its effect on their health and lives; it is not geared towards getting participants to stop drinking but rather takes a pragmatic approach that is typically Dutch, albeit “shocking in other countries.”
Some participants frankly note that, while the program gives their lives “some structure,” they wouldn’t be doing it except for the beer. One 48-year-old-former baker, Vincent, does note that he’s less likely to drink at home after a day of working in the park. Another participant, Frank, who has been arrested for violence, has never worked for anyone and has no fixed residence, acknowledges that “when we leave here, we go to the supermarket and transform the 10 euros we earned into beers.”
The effectiveness of the Rainbow Foundation Project is currently anecdotal. It would be worthwhile to see if such a pragmatic approach is successful over the long-term and if those in the program continue to manage their drinking or eventually will require more support than that offered. For some, could the antidote to alcoholism be not to go “cold turkey” but learn to live — and work — with it?